Everybody understands that it's important to back up your computer. But few have the time or the discipline to do so. And that's why, when hard disks fail, computers are stolen or destroyed, or viruses corrupt data, so many important files are lost.
You could, of course, automatically back up your files to an external hard disk, attached to your PC or to your home network. But that can get expensive, and it doesn't store your backup remotely, so any disaster at your home or office could also wipe out your backup drive.
There's another method: backing up over the Internet to a remote server somewhere. This is automated and solves the location issue, but in too many cases it has been costly and complicated, usually with quotas on how much you can back up.
Now, things are changing. I have been testing two online backup services that offer unlimited capacity -- no quotas or limits at all -- for around $50 a year.
One, called Carbonite, has been unlimited from the start, and Mozy, which previously had limits, is offering unlimited capacity as of today.
Mozy and Carbonite can be set to back up only a few key folders or types of files -- say, all your work documents or music files -- or, you can set them to back up nearly everything on your computer. If you have a loss, whether a single file, a folder, or everything, they allow you to recover it. Also, you can back up multiple computers with Mozy and Carbonite, but you have to pay extra for each additional machine.
The two services are easy to set up and easy to use. Each worked fine in my tests, both for backing up my key files and also for restoring them.
Carbonite can be downloaded at www.carbonite.com or purchased in stores. There is a 15-day free trial, after which it costs $50 a year, though some stores also sell a $15 version that lasts for three months. The trial version doesn't back up music or videos by default.
Mozy can be downloaded from www.mozy.com and costs $4.95 a month, or $54.45 if you pay for a year in advance. Mozy also has a totally free version, which is limited to two gigabytes of data. (That is likely to be more than enough, by the way, to cover all of a typical consumer's word processing, tax and budget files, and plenty of photos.)
Both services currently run only on Windows XP, but both expect to work on the new Windows Vista operating system. And both companies plan to release Macintosh versions next year.
Each installs a fairly small program on your PC that constantly works in the background to back up your data. When a file changes, or a new file is added, it is queued for backup. Carbonite backs up new or changed files 10 minutes after you save and close them, but only backs up each file once a day. Mozy checks the hard disk every two hours and backs up everything that is new or changed. With Mozy, but not with Carbonite, you can also opt for a scheduled backup at a time and interval of your choosing.
The biggest drawbacks of these two products are that backups can be very slow, especially the first backup, and you must have Internet access to do backups and to restore your files. In my tests, on a very fast Internet connection, it still took many hours to do a fairly small initial backup with each product, consisting of about five gigabytes in one case and under two gigabytes in another. A larger backup could take days, though subsequent backups would be much, much quicker.
Both companies encrypt the backed-up files and say they don't view them. Both try to avoid overburdening or slowing down your computer and Internet connection by going idle or slowing down when you are using your computer for other tasks.
To restore files with Carbonite, you open a sort of virtual representation of your backed-up files and click on what you want restored. If your computer is stolen or not functioning, you can also go to a Web site to initiate a full restore to a new computer.
With Mozy, you can also restore files and folders via a virtual view of your backup that resides on your PC. But Mozy has a much richer Web interface for viewing your backup and for restoring files. From a Web site on any PC, you can log into Mozy and pick any file or folder to retrieve. I even logged in from a Mac, opened a Mozy backup of my Windows PC, and recovered a photo that was then downloaded to the Mac.
Of the two products, I prefer Mozy. Carbonite is a little quicker and simpler to set up, but it's more limited. If you want to go beyond the default backup choice -- your most common documents and settings -- you have to troll through your hard disk to select additional folders and files for backup. Mozy also has a default setting, but makes it much easier to alter or customize it.
Mozy offers more-versatile restoring and scheduled backups, and unlike Carbonite, will back up an external hard disk. Mozy will also send you a DVD of all your files, for a fee. Carbonite won't. Mozy also keeps multiple versions of any file for 30 days. Carbonite doesn't.
Still, you won't go wrong with either of these two services, and you'll sleep better at night.